‘You can distort history books, not historical fiction’

Shameem Reza | Update:

Mojaffor Hossain. Photo: Abdus SalamMojaffor Hossain is a short story writer, and has published 13 books so far. He also translates short stories and critical essays from English to Bangla. He has written a novel on the liberation war, expected to be launched at the Ekushey Book Fair-2020. A young writer in his early thirties, Mojaffor currently works at the translation division of Bangla Academy. He has received several national and international awards for his writing. In a recent interview with Shameem Reza of Prothom Alo, he talks about his works.

Prothom Alo: Let’s begin with what you are working on right now...

Mojaffor Hossain: Currently I’m working on a book on Diaspora. This is a critical study. Not many books have been published on the issue in Bangla and in Bangladesh. There are differences between diaspora, expatriates or emigrees. This difference has not been addressed correctly.

Prothom Alo: Your interest in critical studies seems to be growing.

Mojaffor Hossain: I see all of my activities as a preparation for my fiction. I do not write political columns or poems. My focus is exclusively on fiction, more exclusively short stories. This book on diaspora is also a preparation for that. This will help me understand the time I’m living in and the complexities people face in present times. I always think of fiction, even when I’m translating, be it stories, essays and writers’ interviews. I see all of this as a preparation.

Prothom Alo: You mean preparation to write a novel?

Mojaffor Hossain: Not only a novel, any genre of fiction. I don’t differentiate between short stories and novels. What is important to me is what the story demands. You’ll see some of my stories are of 200 words, while some are 5000 words. Many people would like to term these as short fiction, micro fiction, nano fiction and so on, but I don’t draw any distinction between a short story and a novel from the point of view of creation. At the end of the day, the story is important to me, not the form I’m using to tell it.

Prothom Alo: You seem to like writing psychological fiction.

Mojaffor Hossain: This is because of the times in which I live. I’m from a village but now live in a city where time moves very fast and everything is so complex. I learn about an event in the news in one way, then a few days later many alternative versions pop up. I no longer know what is true. In these chaotic times, when content is so complex, it is only natural that the form of a story would also be so.

Prothom Alo: You mean the story unfolds itself in the manner of your writing?

Mojaffor Hossain: Yes.

Prothom Alo: You may not draw distinction between short stories and novels but a novelist has to maintain a certain kind of intensity for over 300 or 400 pages. There could be ups and downs.

Mojaffor Hossain: There are various techniques to write novels. In the Victorian era, novels were like life with so many ups and downs, sometimes characters were interpolated unnecessarily, in the sense that they had nothing to do with the main story. But now I see fiction more as a psychological narration. This began through the writings of Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf etc. I think now it is more important to read a human being than read a society to write fiction, whether it is a short story or a novel. This is what I have been doing with the novel I’m writing now. I don’t have many side characters.

Prothom Alo: You said Kafka or Joyce but what about Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy’s psychological realism, especially Dostoyevsky’s?

Mojaffor Hossain: Psychology is the main thing of literature and art. But there’s a difference between their time and ours. There was no media then as we see today. When Dostoyevsky was writing he turned into a national speaker. People were trying to get a commentary on national history or other things from him. This tendency had grown in Tolstoy too. But now media is there. You get all sorts of many angles, including apparently deeper truths, of an incident within hours in TV talk-shows. The writer has been freed from the immediate responsibility of telling a story. For example, if I were a writer of 200 years ago, it would have been my responsibility to write a novel about 2013 Shahbagh protests immediately. In the same way, the media and technology-boom has changed the pattern of storytelling even though we’re using psychological narration technique.

Cover pages of two short story books of Mojaffor Hossain. Photo: Shameem RezaDue to this rise of media and technology in the early 20th century, several French theorists declared the death of novel as an art form. But within a short time, novel rediscovered itself as novelists like Proust employed different techniques. They detached themselves from social narration. If you notice, novelists now talk about lost times, or a floating world. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro. He is the first generation of Japanese British. He doesn’t have responsibility towards Japanese people or the British. This has made free to choose the topic.

Prothom Alo: Then what about social responsibility of a writer?

Mojaffor Hossain: I don’t feel that. I thought of being a writer at an early age but I’ve never considered literature as a tool to change society. Even when I read Mother by Maxim Gorky, I didn’t think a fight is going on to change the society. I underlined the lines that touched me, for example, the section where Pavel is talking to his mother about removing the role of God from people’s faith. I didn’t realise the politics behind it. What I’m saying is that literature came to me as a tool to discover my identity or my probable identities. The criteria to define my identity like name, religion all are given. I never saw literature as a tool to change society.

Prothom Alo: You mean when you began?

Mojaffor Hossain: Yes, I’m talking about the thought that led me towards writing. This is a complex issue, though, and I might contradict myself later. But that would be from a different context. What I’m saying is my characters are more real to me than the identity I received at birth.

Prothom Alo: Do you want to say your characters are an extended part of you?

Mojaffor Hossain: To some extent, yes, that is true. But I would not take responsibility of all the actions of some of the characters I have created or I may not agree with their thoughts because they do not totally depend on me. The characters unfold themselves in their own way. But at the end of the day, I create my probable identities in different contexts. I may not be a central character in a story or remain as a very small character who is involved with an unexplained incident but I’m there. In the greater sense this creation or search for probable identities is connected to social responsibilities.

Prothom Alo: There are two things -- you are constantly discovering your various selves and waging war with them.

Mojaffor Hossain: Definitely a discovery but I don’t know whether this is a war. If there’s any war that is there before writing the story because when I finish writing a story, I no longer dwell on it. Another thing is I do not write any pre-planned story.

For example, once a line dawned on me that a man did not die because he wanted to commit suicide. I thought, what comes next? At this stage the reader and I were on the same level. My curiosity led me to unfold the story. People normally commit suicide when they are sad or consider themselves a failure. But this man wanted to commit suicide only once he was fully satisfied with life. But he couldn’t commit suicide as he hadn’t achieved that full satisfaction. The creator can’t kill him since he has decided to commit suicide. That’s why he goes on living year after year, at a home at the end of the village. He comes to know the full history of the world in his own way. That may not be a scientific history, of course.

A combination of cover pages of three books written and edited by Mojaffor Hossain. Photo: CourtesyOn the other hand, if we talk about ‘Mojjel, the Flute Player,’ one of my most-read stories, this is a bit planned but not fully. The narrator met Mojjel on a village road after 20 years of his death. I write to enjoy the creative process. This is why I thought as I’ve said that Mojjel has returned after 20 years of his death, I have to explain his reincarnation. I was looking for a way to make this believable to the readers. When I reached that point, the story ends. What I do is impose real characters in unreal context or the opposite. I thought literature is a game of possibilities, an individual plays the game and I wanted to play it.

Prothom Alo: Then do you want to say writing is an inspiration?

Mojaffor Hossain: Inspiration is momentary but one has to prepare oneself rigorously. If a writer is trying to portray an inexplicable character like the one who is alive for thousands of years, then you’ve to think hard about his speaking style and everything else.

Prothom Alo: Then, can you write properly about what you are imagining?

Mojaffor Hossain: It’s not fully possible to write what I’m thinking but I do not regret it, because through this pursuing of stories I’m writing something new.

Prothom Alo: That means you also don’t know the ending?

Mojaffor Hossain: No, I don’t know the ending. Whenever I tried to write a story knowing the ending I completely failed. Even when I write stories on the liberation war, I do not plan the ending beforehand. One might ask how could you, because the liberation war is a set event. But I’m writing story of an individual, not of a million characters. This is an alternative narrative.

Prothom Alo: This alternative narrative about the liberation war reminds me of Zahir Raihan’s short story ‘Somoyer Proyojone’. The characters discussed among themselves what would they say to the commander if he asks why they are fighting. Many there do not even know the reason.

Mojaffor Hossain: I’ve finished writing a novel on the liberation war. I’ve shown a freedom fighter who has lost memory of the war. He sent his son abroad after 1975. The son has returned Bangladesh to know about his father and the liberation war. So he takes his father to his village where he fought but found his father’s co-fighters describing events differently. Some say his father was a coward, some say he did not fight, rather he worked as a cook, some say he was a brave fighter and a great leader. The son realises people, even the freedom fighters, have forgotten incidents related to the war. He loses himself in many alternative narratives.

I’ve written this novel because you can present history in a believable way through fiction and alternative narratives, not through history books properly. One of the character’s of my novel said a person’s history is not the history of a nation, though a person’s life also could be the history of a nation if the person is someone like Bangabandhu. Those who want to distort the history, write another book of history. But you cannot distort a work of fiction as you cannot edit it. You have to ban the book.

But I’m facing some problems regarding language. Sexuality-related language is not so developed in Bangla. One of the main protagonists of my novel is gay. He has grown up seeing the abnormal sexual life of his mother. Different men visit her but the act was tortuous for her too. The protagonist visited brothels of various countries but he always found him remembering his mother’s face and could not do anything. Finally he became sick and turned gay.

I’m trying to show that the war has left many consequences for us. His mother was captured and kept at a camp of Pakistan army. She went through various tortuous experiences. His father went to war and became impotent. He married the woman just to give her an identity since he felt this was his duty as a freedom fighter. I’m not going into details now.

Now what kind of language would he use to describe his mother’s body, necessary description only, without making it sensual? Taking the help of dictionary for words to describe a human body affects the flow of the language. So I’ve used dialect sometimes.

But this is an alternative narrative because I’m not talking about the war as a whole rather I’m talking about an individual. But I would ask readers not to expect much because what I’m showing is that this is a lost time. Even the characters have forgotten the war.

Prothom Alo: Do you mean the war has no effect on Bangladesh?

Mojaffor Hossain: No. There’re two aspects, historical and literary. Those who have researched about the war, failed to go to the people who actually saw the war. No one recorded what these people actually saw. If you go to them now, a long time has already passed. Many have died and many have forgotten many things, sometimes they were forced to forget the actual events for political reasons. Another thing is, whether they are freedom fighters or not, people by nature want to present themselves as heroes, downplaying others. I experienced this while working on a project on oral history. Some presented themselves as a hero thinking they might get a certificate or any other kind of benefit.

What I’m saying is one can glorify the freedom fighters but at the same time one must keep in mind their normal human flaws. For example, one of my characters is a thief who went to fight. The commander asked him to give up theft but he declined saying this is his family profession. My point is you cannot delimit the liberation war within one narrative only. In our Kushtia zone, many robbers were used in very dangerous operations when the freedom fighters could not go there. I’ve published a book Past is a Foreign Land (Atit Ekta Bhindesh) about this.

Prothom Alo: Who are your readers, you think?

Mojaffor Hossain: Mostly young people because they are the ones who I found reviewing my books or stories. The publishers also told me that young people buy my books more than the older generation.

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